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West Africa crisis: a new approach for the future

The worst has past. The lessons must be learnt. This is the rhythm of humanitarian action. And the general feeling is that this time, with the response to the hunger crisis in the Sahel, it’s worked.

The crisis affected over 18 million people and threatened 1 million children with the severest form of malnutrition.

It might not seem that way to those thousands of families who lost their children, or to the thousands displaced by instability in Mali, but the overriding feeling among aid agencies and donors is: it could have been worse.

A glowing report card?

The governments of Niger and Chad deserve immense credit for acknowledging a growing crisis way back in October 2011 and trying to mobilise international support to prevent it. A recent IRIN article found that humanitarian donors responded faster to these appeals for support than in previous years.

This was a key lesson from the Horn of Africa crisis last year: in A Dangerous Delay we highlighted that donors needed to step up as soon as early warning alarms sound, not wait for certainty in the predictions – all too often in the form of suffering visible on our TV screens.

As well as being faster, the response was also better. More cash transfers are being used so families can buy food from local markets when the main obstacle is not availability but soaring prices.

So there is reason for optimism: we can learn the lessons and reduce the suffering of people facing failed harvests and unaffordable food. This is hugely encouraging.

Going into next year, when Save the Children’s supporters are pushing the Prime Minister to prioritise hunger as he chairs the G8, we’re at a key moment for transforming the way we deal with food and nutrition crises.

But before we pat ourselves on the back, a heavy dose of caution is needed. Have agencies and donors built the lessons of past crises into our systems so we’ll give better support to families not just this time, but all the time? As we argue in Ending the Everyday Emergency, the consistent answer is: not yet.

The harder lesson to learn

Crises like the one in west Africa this year, the Horn of Africa last year, and potentially in southern Africa next year – the slow-onset hunger crises – are predictable and preventable.

Yet the international approach is still judged by how well the humanitarian response went, not by how well the aid system helped families avoid crisis.

We need a shift to preventing predicted crises. In countries chronically affected by hunger crises, like Niger and Burkina Faso, development actors can start with some practical changes:

  • agree on common triggers for action
  • build into ongoing programmes – social protection, education, nutrition support – common action plans and contingency funds linked to these triggers
  • establish clear accountability for acting on those triggers.

Opportunity for change

Governments, such as Niger’s, have shown leadership and the international system needs to be reframed to support them.

Best-placed to make these changes are the Political Champions for Resilience – a grouping of the key international aid players from the UN and donors.

In September, the group agreed to support national approaches to disaster resilience. I hope they’ll take this opportunity to look across all the relevant actors in the aid system (not focusing only on the UN) and also identify the changes needed at the international level to support the national efforts.

If they do, this could transform the way the world helps families prevent crises and they could embed the lessons of the past in a new approach for the future.

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